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Tuesday of the Eleventh Week of Matthew
In today’s Gospel, the Lord reproves the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, whose entire religion is a calculated method of pretense before the eyes of men, while their souls are filthy within.
The Lord said, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup ad platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. – Matthew 23: 23-28
The Lord’s great diatribe against these pretended spiritual guides of the Old Testament Church contains, first of all, a theological meaning: The revelation of the Gospel is the true interpretation of the Old Testament, and rabbinical Judaism, of which the Pharisees of the time of Christ are the originators, is not the religion of the Old Testament; it is, rather, a clever distortion thereof, a system of outward conduct that fosters the most profound disorder within the soul. St. Theophan the Recluse, however, in his commentary on this passage, explains its practical meaning for the spiritual life of the Christian. He applies the Lord’s words to us, in order to warn us of the dangers of a purely outward religious life and to encourage us to develop the interior life of the soul:
Cleanse the inner so the outer will be clean. Our outward behavior in society is almost always proper – we fear the judgment of people and restrain ourselves. If we give ourselves over to vices outwardly, this is the end – it means that all shame is lost. But when one’s visible behavior is proper, the inner tenor of thoughts and feelings is not always proper. Here complete freedom is given to pleasing oneself, which is satisfied outwardly to the degree that the eyes of men can bear it and as far as it can hide its works from human sight. This is precisely what a whited sepulcher is. Furthermore, inner uncleanness makes what is on the outside unclean. Cleanse yourself inwardly, and then the exterior will become clean, and you will be entirely clean. You will be made into a vessel that is fit for all the good uses of a householder. One must marvel at how the inside remains neglected; after all, no one wants perdition. Truly, the enemy keeps such a soul in blindness – [he says] that there is no problem as long as there are no obvious sins, or he teaches the soul to put off what is important until tomorrow. “Tomorrow we’ll work seriously on ourselves, as we ought; but now let my soul take some pleasure in passionate thoughts and dreams, if not deeds.” Let us be on our guard that we do not grow old in such a frame of mind, lest correction become impossible for us, like teaching an old man new things. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 170
It is easy to compare our outward conduct to that of the clueless degenerates who now surround us and conclude that we are doing pretty well in the eyes of God. In the midst of the present moral chaos, good old fashioned bourgeois respectability seems a miracle of divine intervention, and it probably is. But we are called to higher things, and the Lord is not satisfied with us until we give Him our hearts.
Years ago, I was struck by another, related passage from Theophan the Recluse, which I came across in the anthology entitled The Art of Prayer by Igumen Chariton of Valaam. I repent of not putting it into practice vigorously and consistently, but now, as always, is the time to start. The saint here teaches that the spiritual father should not wait until his spiritual children have shown regularity in outward prayer rules before teaching them about the interior life of the Jesus Prayer and constant inward attentiveness. Rather he should do this right away, both because the latter is more essential and because without it the former does not bear fruit. Worse, it actually hardens the soul against purity and holiness; it produces the soul of a Pharisee. Here is a section of that passage:
Gather yourself together in the heart, and there practice secret meditation. By this means, with the help of God’s grace, the spirit of zeal will be maintained in its true character – burning sometimes less and sometimes more brightly. Secret meditation sets our feet on the path of inner prayer, which is the most direct road to salvation [emphasis mine]. We may leave all else and turn only to this work, and all will be well. Conversely, if we fulfill all other duties and neglect this one task we shall bear no fruit.
He who does not turn within and look to this spiritual task will make no progress. It would be true to say that this task is extremely difficult, especially at the beginning, but on the other hand it is direct and fruitful in result. A spiritual father should therefore introduce the practice of inner prayer among his spiritual children as early as possible, and confirm them in its use. It is even possible to start them in this before any exterior observances, or together with them; in any case it is essential not to leave it until too late. This is because the very seed of spiritual growth lies in this inner turning to God. The Art of Prayer, 1997 ed. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, pp. 77-78
To begin is simple: Set aside ten minutes a day to stand or kneel or sit, alone before your icons, and say the Prayer of Jesus, aloud but quietly, at a moderate pace, and struggle for attention. As many times as your mind wanders, force it back to the words of the prayer. Throughout the day, say the prayer mentally as much as possible. At the end of the day, review your thoughts, words, and deeds of the day, ask God’s forgiveness for your failings, and then go to sleep saying the Jesus Prayer. As soon as you wake up, start saying it again.
Do not worry about how to proceed. Prayer teaches itself. If we are faithful, the Lord will give abundant grace, and He will come to dwell in our hearts.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, and save us. Amen.